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Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): Does my hon. Friend agree that a ban on night flights is needed? I am sure that his constituents, like mine, have to put up with flights as early as 4 am every morning, which keeps them awake and makes life intolerable.

Mr. McDonnell: That is a pertinent point. At the terminal 5 inquiry, HACAN has made it clear that the noise generated by the four-terminal Heathrow is causing widespread suffering. Thousands of families are persistently deprived of sleep, as my hon. Friend said, by the noise of jumbo jets flying over London; the noise starts at 4 am and continues throughout the day. Even on BAA's evidence, 50 per cent. more people will be affected by aircraft noise in 2016 if terminal 5 is given the go-ahead.

From my constituency, residents' associations, the community health council and local doctors have combined to research and expose the impact on the health

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of local residents of air pollution from the airport and its associated road traffic. A key finding of surveys undertaken by the community health council and residents was the high level of respiratory illness among people living on the estates round the airport. One local doctor has reported an incidence of asthma among local children of twice the national average and a similarly high comparative incidence of asthma and respiratory disease among other patient age groups.

The residents' associations have also expressed strong concerns about the risk to public safety posed by the location of one of world's largest airports in an area of such high population density. We should never underestimate the risk to life and limb of an aircraft coming out of the sky over such a densely populated area. Hanging over the heads of all the residents is a sense of inevitability that, if terminal 5 is given the go-ahead, the increase in the number of passengers passing through Heathrow from 15 million a year to 19 million a year will result in the next development--a new application for a third runway.

A third runway could result in the demolition of up to 4,000 homes in my constituency, wiping off the face of the earth the remaining villages to the north of the airport and displacing a whole community. That prospect creates uncertainty, which blights a whole area and a whole community.

The experience of my community with Heathrow should never be repeated, there or anywhere else. It could be avoided by the process advocated by numerous community and environmental organisations: the setting of environmental limits for existing and new airports. Those limits are nothing more than a set of permanently fixed environmental criteria that must be adhered to at each airport or planned airport.

The limits would be enshrined in the area's local development plan, and would involve an extensive range of environmental impact assessments. They would protect the local environment from continual expansion of airports and relieve the uncertainties and blight that expansion pressures create in any community.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about Heathrow's impact on his constituency. He will also be aware of the possible sale of RAF Northolt to the private sector, or the increase in the number of commercial flights that has been touted by people from various sources. Does he agree that, if either scenario were to materialise, local communities in both his constituency and mine would suffer blight, and there would be considerable environmental consequences?

Mr. McDonnell: That is a valid point. The consequences would be devastating for the whole region. My constituents would be sandwiched between two major airports, with all the pollution that that involves, and my hon. Friend's constituency would suffer not only increased noise and pollution but road transport gridlock, which would affect the whole of north-west London.

Environmental limits would relieve pressure and give certainty, as well as demonstrating to the aviation industry exactly what the operational limits of a particular airport are and what standards would be expected in any planned new airport. Stability would be provided both for the communities and for the industry, and the need for lengthy planning inquiries would be obviated, or at least reduced.

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Environmental limits could be established either by agreement between the local planning authority andthe airport operator, or by the Government. Their effectiveness would depend on their virtual irreversibility once agreed or set. The range of impact assessments or criteria that would comprise the agreement for a particular airport would naturally reflect the local environment.

There could readily be local flexibility, but several core limits are obvious: the airport's geographical boundary and its proximity to residential properties; the appropriate noise contours; the types of aircraft to be operated and the maximum number of air traffic movements per annum; the runway configuration and approved tracks for aircraft; the times of operation; the need or otherwise for the use of reverse thrust, night running of engines, ground power units, and other high-noise sources; the location of public safety zones and built-up areas overflown by aircraft on landing and take-off; the development of infrastructure to support the airport; and the protection of the green belt.

In its evidence to the Transport Sub-Committee, the Aviation Environmental Federation provided a checklist of environmental concerns relating to the use of airports, including an exhaustive list of issues to be addressed, under the broad headings of noise and vibration; emissions and effluents; land take; and infrastructure.

Serplan, the south-east regional planning conference, recently published a consultation document on a sustainable development strategy for the south-east and recommended that local authorities identify environmental limits at existing airports and set capacities in relation to surface access, noise and associated developments.

The advantages of setting such limits are obvious. They would establish how much air and road traffic would be generated by an airport development; how many air movements would take place, and between what times; the noise levels permitted; and, combined with local development plans, the area beyond which the airport cannot expand.

For the aviation industry and local businesses, it would be clear what developments were applicable. It has been proposed that the monitoring and enforcement of environmental limits would be the responsibility of the local authority, which would have strict enforcement powers. However, with the advent of a strategic authority for London, that may well be one of the environmental powers that we could attribute to the mayor and the assembly.

The use of environmental assessments is not new, especially under European legislation. In the past year, the Government have been consulting on a European Union directive on the extension of impact assessments to the environmental effects of public and private projects. That directive provides for greater public access to the environmental information on major development projects, such as airport developments, which enhances accountability and democratic control and ensures that decision making is more open and transparent. That would be a first for the aviation industry. Environmental limits would give purpose and teeth to the assessment.

Clearly, the country has recently woken up to the need for a thorough debate on the future of airports and the aviation industry. Like other forms of transport, air transport has brought considerable benefits, but the massive growth in air traffic and the substantial growth of airports has also imposed significant environmental costs.

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In my constituency, we know of the effect on each generation--each generation of asthma sufferers, of people with respiratory problems and of people who cannot sleep at night and whose pleasure in their own gardens is undermined because of noise pollution.

If we are to tackle the environmental implications of that growth in airports, we must go beyond the protection of local environments from overblown airport development. We will need to combine the environmental limiting of airports with measures to promote the "polluter pays" principle within the aviation industry. That is a principle to which the Government have adhered since their election--they are now developing not only green policies but even green Budgets.

That could mean reviewing the existing tax exemptions on aviation fuel, for example, and negotiating via the European Union an environmental levy on airline fuel purchases. As in the car industry, that would increase the incentives for airlines to put pressure on manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency. In addition, Britain could follow other European countries by basing charges to airlines on the noise and weight of an aircraft, and fining individual companies for off-track flying.

I look forward to all those issues being tackled in the integrated transport strategy, which is to be published next week. I hope that, despite the proximity of that publication, the Minister will be able to throw some light on the Government's thinking on the impact of airports on the environment. That issue affects not merely my constituency and those of other hon. Members represented here today, but the whole of London. We have endured that problem for decades. It requires urgent attention, and I believe that this Government will give it such attention.

2.47 pm

The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) on his success in obtaining this debate and raising a matter that is of considerable importance not merely to residents in his constituency but those living throughout London, as he rightly said in his conclusion.

I shall do my best to respond to the issues that he raised, but I hope that he will appreciate that my responsibilities are primarily in the planning field and that wider matters of aviation policy are more strictly the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London. I know that my hon. Friend has contacted her about these matters and will continue to do so.

Our aim, like that of successive Governments since aircraft noise became a cause for concern, is to strike a balance between the economic benefits that airports bring and the numerous other effects on the surrounding communities, some of which are far less beneficial. Noise is usually the paramount concern of local residents, but we are also concerned about aircraft emissions, as they can affect both local and global air quality, and the surface access implications of airport developments, which are always carefully scrutinised.

Every airport has to tackle a range of waste and energy management issues, as well as development pressures, which are often concentrated in the areas surrounding an

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airport. Those pressures must be managed both by the airports and through the planning system to ensure that environmental consequences are acceptable.

Not surprisingly, much current interest in the subject surrounds BAA's current application for a fifth terminal at Heathrow airport. The House will appreciate that I may not address that issue in any great detail. The applications were accompanied by an environmental assessment, and the environmental impact has been the subject of much written and oral evidence to the inquiry. All information will be fully considered by the inspector, who is responsible for the conduct of the inquiry and for the consideration of evidence.

The Secretary of State's quasi-judicial position in the planning process precludes me from discussing the merits of the case, except to say that my Department's position on the application remains one of neutrality. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has appeared twice at the inquiry, and he will understand the constraints that I am under. Our factual evidence is already on the public record, and I do not propose to recite swathes of it here.

Ministers are, however, committed to speeding up the planning process, and the way in which proposals for major infrastructure projects of national importance are dealt with--a stance that we reiterated in a policy statement in January. We are examining various options, ranging from modifications to inquiry procedures to alternative processes such as special development orders, hybrid Bills and Transport and Works Act 1992 procedures. We intend to consult widely on proposals to improve planning appeal procedures generally, with a view to reaching quicker decisions and minimising uncertainty while safeguarding the ability of all interested parties to participate fully and effectively in the appeal process.

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